SBJ/Sept. 21-27, 2015/Media

More gambler friendly, ESPN annoys colleges

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Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

ESPN has told college officials that it will not use the controversial “cover alerts” that it rolled out during one game telecast earlier this month.

But that doesn’t mean that ESPN is going to shy away from referring to point spreads and over-under lines on its studio shows. ESPN has allowed more gambling references on its air this season, a move that has irked many college administrators. But it was one Friday night highlight earlier this month that really generated howls of protest from university executives.

Michigan State’s 37-24 victory over Western Michigan prompted a “cover alert” on ESPN.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
On Sept. 4, ESPN broke into its Baylor-SMU telecast to show a highlight when Western Michigan scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to cut Michigan State’s lead to 17. The Spartans were favored by 18, and ESPN branded the break-in as a “cover alert,” something the network had not done before. Michigan State ended up winning the game by 13 points.

That was the only time ESPN used a “cover alert,” and ESPN executives said they made a quick decision to get rid of it even before they heard any complaints.

“We did it once. I didn’t like it, and we stopped it,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and production. “To me, it was too overt. Part of everything we do has a little bit of trial and error.”

ESPN has been upfront about its plans to discuss gambling on its shows more regularly this season, from Scott Van Pelt’s studio show to Brent Musburger’s veiled references to his “friends in the desert” (i.e., Las Vegas gamblers). Though Wildhack stressed that talk of gambling takes up a tiny percentage of ESPN’s programming (it’s around 2 percent of “College GameDay” and Van Pelt’s show, he said), the increased attention on gambling makes college officials uneasy.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was among those who took notice of ESPN’s increased coverage of betting lines during its college coverage.

Sankey was attending games on that first weekend of the college football season so he didn’t see much of ESPN’s coverage during the season’s opening weekend, but word quickly got back to him that ESPN had integrated the point spreads into its prediction segment and other aspects of its game-day coverage.

Like a football coach after a game, Sankey watched video of ESPN’s coverage to find out what the fuss was about. He wouldn’t get into the details of his subsequent conversations with ESPN officials. But his reaction to the second week of the season was that ESPN made an effort to find more balance in its use of point spreads.

Still, it is clear to him after week one that “the pendulum had swung” in the direction of point spreads.

“We certainly try to be mindful of the culture around us,” Sankey said, “but that doesn’t mean that we accept it as entirely appropriate. There is an existing concern about gambling becoming more central to the sport (and the broadcast). Although there has not been any official discussion as a conference about this issue, we need to be attentive to the integrity of the game.”

ESPN owns almost all of the media rights to the SEC, including the ESPN-owned SEC Network, and Sankey describes the relationship as healthy and “full of ongoing dialogue. … But everyone is attentive to the issues around gambling,” he said.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has made similar comments to the press this month, saying that he does not think college football shows should be discussing betting lines.

Other TV networks have different philosophies when it comes to gambling references. CBS Sports, which has the rights to televise an SEC game each week, takes a more conservative approach.

“We don’t have a policy regarding it, but we also don’t encourage it for our announcers,” said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. “We understand that fantasy and wagering is a large part of what happens around NFL football. But we’ve chosen at this point not to really highlight it or address it specifically in our broadcasts.”

Fox Sports, which carries Big 12 and Pac-12 games, has gambling segments on its studio shows, like FS1’s “Fox Sports Live.” But it hasn’t addressed the topic with any of its on-air announcers, said John Entz, Fox Sports executive producer and president of production.

“Internally, we haven’t even discussed it; we haven’t had a conversation with our announcers about it at all,” he said. “It hasn’t really been addressed previously because our guys don’t tend to discuss it on the air. It’s never been a question.”

NBC Sports Group allows announcers such as “Sunday Night Football’s” Al Michaels to make references to various odds, usually with a wink-and-a-nod. When the Steelers scored a meaningless touchdown at the end of the network’s first NFL game this month, Michaels made several veiled references to the point spread.

An NBC Sports spokesperson said Michaels’ remarks were in keeping with the way he’s called the end of games in previous seasons. He has not been any more overt about it this season, the spokesperson said.

But that’s not the case with ESPN. Wildhack pointed to several factors that caused the increase in gambling talk — from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s call for legalized gambling to the rise in daily fantasy.

“We’ve been careful for a long period of time in our conversation on this,” Wildhack said. “There’s an increased interest in this conversation. The fact is that there are millions of people who do engage in legal sports betting. To blindly ignore that is somewhat naïve. We try to cover it in a way that’s going to be smart and somewhat entertaining.”

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